Caster Semenya – cover-ups, lies and confusion  //  The debacle that is Caster Semenya's case. And more will follow

22 Sep 2009 Posted by

For those who have not been following this astonishing story, Athletics South Africa boss Leonard Chuene admitted on the weekend that he lied about not having prior knowledge of the doubt around Caster Semenya, and has admitted that he authorized tests on Semenya in South Africa before the team left for the IAAF World Champs in Berlin.

He has also admitted that he received medical advice from the team doctor that she should NOT run against women, but that he over-ruled the expert opinion, saying that he would not act on ‘rumor’, and entered Semenya anyway.

The time-line of this story now looks as follows:

  • 31 July – Semenya runs 1:56.72 in Mauritius
  • 3 August – the IAAF requests testing or some investigation
  • The request is acted upon by Dr Harold Adams, who was the Team Doctor for the Berlin World Championships (Chuene denied this, by the way, even though his own federation issued a press statement naming Adams as the doctor)
  • 7 August – testing is done at a clinic in Pretoria. Semenya is told that the process is for doping purposes, not a gender test. She was apparently very distressed and confused, but no explanation was given
  • Adams then advised Chuene to withdraw Semenya, since his results revealed that she should not compete. We do not know what he found – was it the same as the Australian media are alleging? Was it definitive? Was further testing required? We may never know the answers to these questions
  • Chuene (via a process that has yet to be revealed, but SA readers can watch 3rd Degree on E-TV tonight at 21h30 for more) over-ruled the expert opinion, and entered Semenya anyway
  • Chuene launched a campaign of misinformation and denial, failing to give the IAAF the results from this testing, and denied that it had ever been done. He sowed confusion to allow Semenya to run and win the medal
  • Once the leak to the media had occurred, revealing that the IAAF had commissioned its own tests (which it had to, since ASA “buried” theirs), Chuene attacked first Australia, then white media, then everyone else. Political leaders threw their weight behind him, and the IAAF were slammed for their discrimination. And let’s be clear – the IAAF should be ashamed of that leak, but should not have to defend that they requested testing, on two occasions. Their handling of the case has in fact been by the book, with the exception of the leak. Unfortunately, that leak gave ASA and others the license to pass the accountability, which has delayed the inevitable truth somewhat.

Chuene’s confession – not all that surprising

Chuene’s confession, which has been viewed as a revelation here in SA by many of our politicians and media correspondents, is in fact nothing more than confirmation of what a lot of people have been saying since the beginning. In fact, if you go back to the start of this debacle, you’ll see many people were saying that this smacked of a cover-up, and that Chuene was lying from day 1. Once Wilfred Daniels resigned as high performance coach, and alleged that ASA had done testing, it was a case that someone was lying. Daniels had nothing to gain from lying, having sacrificed his job to come clean. The vocal support thrown behind Chuene disregarded that the possibility that he was lying even existed.

Saturday’s press conference merely confirmed this. It was, to be clear, inconceivable that ASA could NOT have known of the situation, and the sum of all the allegations and reports added up to the fact that ASA did know and that Chuene was lying all along – it took his confession to finally open people up to this possibility.

Take for example, the following piece that I wrote the day after Semenya won the 800m gold medal:

Next, it is VERY MUCH ASA’s responsibity to manage Semenya’s the athlete, which surely includes this aspect. It is only in a completely amateur organization, which has zero strategic plan, where a federation can limit it’s responsibility to training athletes only.

To put this as simply as possible, there are only four possible scenarios here:

  1. ASA did not do a single test on Semenya. If this is true, they have ignored the controversy, and the very obvious impending situation, and sent her into the Worlds, where this problem was going to surface. In this case, we have a case of neglect and irresponsibility.
  2. ASA did do some tests, but only cursory tests, which they believe sufficed. As we’ve explained, and many of you have commented, the sex determination test is enormously possible, with a risk of false results. If this is what happened, then it is a case of carelessness. And yet Semenya was sent, without proper process being followed, ASA should be held accountable.
  3. ASA did very comprehensive tests, or did a minimum level of test, and uncovered that there was in fact grounds for suspicion. If this was true, then there is no way ASA should have entered Semenya, because they knew that a problem would arise. If they did, effectively playing Russain roulette with a young women’s life, it would be despicable.
  4. ASA did a very comprehensive test, and discovered no reason at all to doubt her sex. If this was true, ASA would be in the clear, and no problem would exist. I think it’s safe to say that this was NOT done, because Cheune would have said so in his interview and this problem would have been managed” 

— Science of Sport, 21 August 2009

What time has revealed is that the answer was Number 3 – ASA did the tests, they knew the problem existed, and they chose to enter her despite this. And then they launched a campaign of aggressive accusation, slander and denial. Among some of the gems we’ve heard was Leonard Chuene labelling entire nations as racist, calling entire universities stupid, and attacking anyone who dared suggest that perhaps ASA had not managed this situation appropriately.

We had a Minister of Sport threatening Third World War if Semenya’s medal was taken away, even though two statements by high-ranking officials from the IAAF said that this would not be the case.

And we had a range of political figures discussing Caster Semenya’s genitalia while she sat, expressionless, on the stage at a political rally/press conference when the team arrived back. Female athletes were labelled as ugly, others had their genitals discussed in public, and people were told “so what if she is a hermaphrodite”.

Complete disregard for expertise, which was a phone call away

It has been, to be blunt, an embarrassing time to be a South African in athletics and sport. Nowhere in this entire fiasco did a person of authority actually state that expertise will be called in, and that they will respect the scientific evidence and process presented to them. Only after the allegations got so bad that they were compelled did they finally announce “internal inquiries” and scientific panels, whose purpose was primarily to expose the flawed process of the IAAF.

Not once has a public figure acknowledged the role of experts in potentially preventing this problem – Chuene has now admitted that he overruled the expert advice he was given (that advice is being called “rumor”, which is hardly surprising when you consider that universities are apparently “stupid”).

All the while, experts were a phone-call away – one thing that I have discovered in following this is that there are people, who in 30 seconds, can explain the complexities of the science to you. Endocrinologists, chemical pathologists, a neuroscientist, a genetic counselor – I’ve had the privilege of interacting with all these people, and they clarify the issue within a minute.

The Minister of Sport actually wrote me a letter, asking that I stop speaking critically about their role (specifically, he referred to my criticism of his “Third World War” rhetoric). In his letter, he said the “science is complex”. Problem is, it’s not. What is complex is the ethical debate, as Zoe, Alessandra and Tina have been showing at a previous post – but the science is pretty straight-forward, what you do with the science, that’s less obvious.

Many people – endocrinologists, psychologists, geneticists, physiologists – deal with it all the time. It’s only complex when you’re not listening, because the facts get in the way of the story…

Perhaps away from the media glare, people have cared, but what has been said in public has betrayed a scrambling for the moral high ground like we’ve not seen. Unfortunately, those who clamoured for the high ground are now looking down, and discovering that they’re standing on a mole-hill.

What next?

I can also guarantee that this is by no means the last of the revelation, and more will follow. Tonight, on South African television, Debra Patta of the show 3rd Degree will reveal more information – I’ll leave it to her, and the media in the next few days, to reveal that, but if you are in SA, make a point to watch at 21h30, because she will explain exactly what transpired in the build-up to Berlin.

Then, ASA has a council meeting on Thursday, at which the future of Leonard Chuene will be discussed. Whether the council will recommend that he step down is anyone’s guess. The media and most political parties have called for his resignation, which he has refused, saying that he will not run away. So if the council elect to leave him in (this is the same council that commended him for handling the matter “exceptionally well” only 10 days ago, so it’s not inconceivable), then there may well be intervention from higher up, since SASCOC (our Olympic Committee) have rightly said they will investigate that he lied openly to them as well.

I would also suggest, however, given that Chuene had medical results which he deliberately buried and kept from the IAAF (and it seems that these medical results are incriminating and would have prevented Semenya from running), that he be held to account for what was effectively fraud. I would also propose that ASA should be sanctioned, possibly by denying them participation in the 2011 IAAF World Championships.

Unfortunately, this has exposed the administration of sport and failure of athlete management to the highest degree. People have focused on the events since August, when the IAAF first requested. But, in reality, a professional system would have picked up problems long before this. It’s a telling indictment on SA sport that this did not happen. The authorities dismiss as “allegation and rumor” anything that is not proven, but an organization that manages high performance sport effectively is able to predict the future, and control it, precisely because allegation and rumor are the first signs of an impending problem.

Reactionary high performance, combined with ambition to win and which ignores expertise, produces what we are seeing now.


This post is part of the following threads: Caster Semenya, News/Controversies – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.

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